Table of contents
- Gnalla ( pronounced Nyah-La)
- Founders - Kirby Bentley & Jayme-Lee Fechner
- Based in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia
- Started in 2021
- 2 founders, 2 employees
Kirby & JL, what's your backstory?
Kirby: I’m a Noongar woman from Mount Barker, Country W.A.. Both of my parents are Noongar, and I have two younger sisters.
I grew up a die-hard West Coast Eagles fan and wanted to play footy like “Ben Cousins”, but girls weren’t allowed to play footy, so I took up karate. My parents suggested it as I couldn’t concentrate at school, and they felt like it would make me more disciplined. I got my black belt at the age of 14 and then started my career in netball.
I got into netball by chance when a few friends asked me to ‘fill in’. I initially said no as I didn’t want to wear a skirt.
After a couple of games, I picked it up, and before I knew it, I was playing netball with 17-year-olds at the age of 14, representing W.A and then on to becoming an all-Australian.
Footy came later in life at 24, after my mum’s sister was murdered due to domestic violence. I wanted to become closer to my sister, Ashleigh, because of what had happened to my Auntie.
Ashleigh played footy, so she asked me to play a game. Like netball, I picked it up and then, before I knew it, I was playing AFLW for Freemantle, where I became Vice Captain.
Post elite level sport, I’ve had some interesting gigs, including working in the mines, a rigger on the Westgate tunnel and then a First Nations cultural awareness trainer, where I met my business partner, JL.
JL: I met Kirby in November of 2021 when she began working at the same consulting company as me. We were chatting over Zoom one day, as I lived in Sydney and she lived in Melbourne. Kirby was showing me a recent Guernsey design she did for Western Bulldogs AFLW, as she was the First Women’s Indigenous coach in AFLW. I started thinking to myself… is there anything this woman can't do?!
That night I went to bed restless, tossing and turning, thinking– wow, I’ve met someone really special and bloody talented. Imagine if we could use Kirby’s art on clothing to share stories of First Nation culture.
So, the next day, we met on Zoom again, and I straight out said… “Let’s start a clothing brand”. A part of it was self-sabotage, thinking Kirby would flat-out say no. But I underestimate Kirby, and she said– Yep, let’s do it.
From that moment on, Gnalla was born, and I moved to Melbourne a month later.
Tell us what your company does?
We are a First Nations fashion brand that shares the world’s longest living culture through design and art. We are an Ally Friendly brand, which means that everyone can wear our clothing.
How did you come up with the idea?
Gnalla comes from the language group of the Noongar people meaning ‘Ours’. We wanted to create an inclusive brand that people feel proud to wear and come together through conversation.
We want to connect people from all cultures and walks of life, because our differences will ultimately be what connects us.
Through this brand and our art, we aim to share stories and, in doing so, create conversation. This way, we can break down barriers and begin to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable and build a trusting relationship to move forward and create this new world we call ‘Ours’.
How did you go about building and launching the business?
The start was really challenging. We knew we didn’t want to offshore our products and wanted them to be in good hands. We had a great reference for a screen printer in Geelong. From the moment we chatted with Chris from Full Moon Screen Prints, we knew they were our sidekicks.
JL: Kirby and I entered the rag trade with no previous experience in this industry. I came from a social media and PR background, and Kirby is a former elite Netballer and AFL player. So we literally knew nothing about the e-commerce and fashion world.
We did have one thing in common: share the oldest living culture in the world through art and storytelling.
I didn’t even know what screen printing was before this venture! I was very naive. I’ve been amazed at the whole process and journey from sourcing apparel to the end product.
Kirby’s AFL and the sporting network have been tremendously supportive of Gnalla. We launched the ‘Back In Our Hands’ Tee during the women’s and men’s AFL indigenous round, which is a celebration of the Aboriginal Flag being "Back In Our Hands". It's been two years since First Nations Peoples have been able to wear our National Flag proudly and freely, so seeing people wear this tee was a very proud moment for us.
I think a real pinch-me moment was Bailey Smith and Marcus Bontempelli wearing the Back In Our Hands Tee. Their platform is massive, so to have two people of that status not only wearing our tee but celebrating what the tee represents and the fight for the freedom of the Aboriginal flag was a big deal.
How have you grown the business?
Our growth has been surreal.
JL: I have a folder on my laptop titled, ‘From where we started. I’ve kept our original logos and shirts. I was comparing our first launch to our second release last night and could not believe how far we’ve come! And not just in designs, but as people, we’ve both grown so much. Kirby is the yin to my yang. I’ve never met someone that meets my stress in a way that allows me to see perspective.
I have also learnt so much about First Nations culture through Kirby. She enables me to ask questions I was too scared to ask before. As Kirby often says, you don't know what you don't know.
And that’s what our brand is about! Creating conversation that educates, inspires and cultivates change.
What's your biggest selling product/service?
JL: It’s funny when you start a business that you think the journey will be straightforward and linear. I get uncomfortable with change, but having a small business has shown me just how exciting and great change is!
We started with a plan of designing tote bags, which turned into shirts, which turned into canvas prints and then found a niche: First Nations art on footy boots.
A few elite AFL players asked Kirby to paint their boots for Indigenous Round. They turned out to be unbelievable, and the orders kept coming!
It was something we didn’t expect to take off, and to be honest, it was more of a passion project at the beginning and a unique way of marketing our product.
Then we thought, what about customized sneakers?
So Kirby started painting sneakers… and the rest is history! There is nothing in the world quite like it. So to be able to share an art form of the longest living culture in the world, 60,000 years, is beyond special.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
JL: Mine is definitely having hard business conversations. I am a people-pleaser by nature and what I’ve found is people can take advantage of that. My biggest flaw is knowing when to switch my friends hat to my business hat. And also, when you treat everyone like friends, you can often get left behind as you’re not considered a priority. So striking a balance between work and friendship is still a work in progress, but I’m getting better at it each day. You can still be nice and assertive. I think that’s the best lesson I’ve learnt along the way.
Kirby: Saying yes to everyone and not putting a value on it. And not valuing my time in relation to our business. It is good to say yes to people who have been there to support you, but you can’t continue to do everything for free. Everything we do is valued and has a price. But from a cultural perspective, we like to share our stories and give back. This is tough.
What's next for you and your business?
We are constantly evolving and adapting every day.
JL: As I previously mentioned, I struggle with change. Kirby, being the wonderful creative she is, constantly throws ideas at me. Initially I was overwhelmed, but I have learnt to love it. If I was running this business solely, it would have failed by now. We need to constantly update everything from our social media to our clothes to the way we deliver our messages.
Kirby: I think bringing in artists, and family and giving them a platform to continue to create conversations. Our art speaks to everyone differently, so I can’t wait to get more of our mob on board.
What digital tools do you use regularly?
JL: Technology is our best friend. Procreate for Kirby’s designs, Shopify, and Spotify to get us in the zone while Kirby Paints shoes and I handle the site. TikTok has been a really big asset to us. The algorithm favors creativity and uniqueness. I took a video of Kirby painting shoes and cut bits of the process. I added some music, and it took off like wildfire. I would highly recommend it to any business – from dentists to creatives. TikTok is for everyone– be as creative as you can with it!
What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
JL : Tim Ferris– tribe of mentors
JL: Podcasts: Andrew Hubberman. Not just for work, but for life. The importance of prioritizing sleep and getting sunlight have been monumental in the way I live.
Kirby: The only thing that inspires me is wanting to lead by example for the younger generation, so they can do and be whatever they want.
What do you love and hate about being a founder?
JL: I love that I am not confined to the 9-5. I find that after lunch I am useless! I peak at 8:30-12 and again from 4-7. I have created a great routine based on this. As long as you get your work done, find the time that works with your rhythm.
Hate… the overnight success myth. It’s a continual hustle and grind, and I don't know if you ever reach a point where you’re fully satisfied. I think it’s always good to be on your toes.
Kirby: I enjoy sharing our culture as the oldest living in the world– it’s a powerful bloodline. Especially to share First Nations culture in a positive light, because we’re often portrayed negatively in the media.
What do you love doing outside running your business?
JL: Spending time with friends and family.
Kirby: Coaching the Essendon AFLW team, the challenge of coaching, teaching and learning. The best part of life is learning.
What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?
JL: I used to hate breathing and meditation exercises. I honestly hated being with my thoughts. But I’ve since started taking up these practices at a sauna. I find that if I can kill two birds with one stone, then it feels like it’s worth it. I get to sweat it out and meditate with no distractions… win!
Kirby: Exercise. Gym. Eat well. Walk. Staying off social media.
In a few words, sum up what it means to be the founder of a business
JL: Unbelievably rewarding. I never know what each day holds, which is super exciting! I’ve become a founder of a business, but I’ve also found a best mate too.
Kirby: It’s an exciting platform to be able to share my people’s culture with the rest of the world.
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
JL: Patience. There will be good weeks, and there will be bad weeks. Hang on because it's all worth it.
Kirby: Trust and be proud of everything you do. You can always make changes as you go, change is a good thing, and feedback is good.
Where can people find out more about your business?